Germany probes cause of deadly train crash

Berlin (AFP) - German investigators scrambled Wednesday to determine what caused a train crash that killed 10 people, warning it was too early to draw conclusions as media reports claimed human error was to blame.

Two trains travelling at high speed crashed head-on Tuesday, in one of Germany's deadliest accidents in years, with one slicing the other apart, ripping a large gash in its side.

All bodies had been recovered from the wreckage, police said, adding that 17 people were seriously injured and 63 slightly hurt in the collision near the southern spa town of Bad Aibling.

Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt told rolling news channel NTV that an automatic braking system fitted on the line underwent routine checks just a week ago and was found to be "fully functional."

He added that one of three black boxes showed there was "no technical problem on the line and that the signal handling of the driver was correct."

Nevertheless, Dobrindt said that "one cannot rule out any error", stressing that data from all three boxes had to be analysed before drawing conclusions.

Two of the three black boxes had been recovered hours after the crash, but investigators were still searching for the third.

"Without the information from this black box, it is impossible to have a complete analysis on whether this was a technical fault or human error, or a combination of both," he said.

- 'Safety system manually deactivated' -

Citing sources close to the investigation, newspaper group RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND) said a signal station worker had manually deactivated the automatic signalling system to let the first train -- which was running late -- go past.

That action would have also shut off the automatic braking system.

The second train then forged ahead on the same track in the opposite direction, before the first was able to split off where the line divides into two, according to RND.

The influential daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung also said preliminary investigations showed a signals controller had switched off the safety system and only his colossal mistake when it was too late.

Police would not confirm the reports, and a spokeswoman from the transport ministry would also not be drawn.

"All possibilities that could have led to this disaster are being examined. That includes examining the black boxes, looking at what happened on the tracks, speaking with witnesses and signal workers," said spokeswoman Vera Moosmayer.

"The investigations are ongoing," she said.

- 'Thrown across the train' -

Stefano, 24, a passenger on one of the trains, told Bild newspaper that the horrific accident began with a sudden "screech, like with an emergency brake".

"Then there was a real crash, it was damn loud. The back of the train was thrust up. The lights went out and I was thrown across half the train.

"I was so scared I was going to die. Next to me, a man was flung head-on against a window pane, he was around 45 to 50 years old. I saw how he died," recounted Stefano, who was later helped out of the train by fellow passengers.

Salvage workers expected to take at least two days to remove the mangled wreckage from the site.

Large cranes have been sent to the wooded area next to a river to help with extraction efforts.

The accident is Germany's first fatal train crash since 2012, when three people were killed and 13 injured in a collision between two regional trains in the western city of Offenbach.

The country's deadliest post-war rail accident happened in 1998, when a high-speed ICE train linking Munich and Hamburg derailed in the northern town of Eschede, killing 101 people and injuring 88.

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